Ellen & Kim's Fabulous Italian (& German) Adventure - Oct '08
On October 3rd, after months and months of preparation and anticipation, Ellen and I headed off for Firenze (Florence), Italy. We, along with 12 other neighbors (and neighbor's friends) of Ellen's, rented Villa di Bagnolo outside of Florence, just down the hill from Impruneta. A VILLA! THAT SLEEPS 14! It was as close to living in a castle as I think I'll ever get.
We arrived Saturday morning in Milan. Our connecting flight to Florence had been cancelled, so we hitched a ride with four others heading to the villa (Bob, Mary Ann, Tom and Carol), putting our confidence in Bob's ability to adapt to Italian driving. (And while Mary Ann, his wife, had every confidence that Bob's previous European driving experience — 40 YEARS AGO — would carry over to modern conditions, I had my concerns.) But after an unplanned adventure getting off the Autostrasse to get back on going the other way, we did make it safely.
Kim: Let me just say that Italian drivers are CRAZY. Especially at round-abouts. CRAZY. Everybody wants to be first. INSANE.
But all that was soon forgotten as soon as we entered the gates of the villa. It was the hilltop paradise we had been dreaming about, surrounded by olive groves, grape vines and lemon trees. I could easily get used to this. Oh, yeah.
Ellen: Finally, Tuscany. After ten months of anticipation, having group meetings, making plans, arranging schedules, dealing with flight cancellations, packing (and repacking…and repacking), and, at the end, cramming three weeks of work into one, we were off to Italy. What complete relief and joy at arriving at this movie-set-like-but-real villa!
Sunday: Arresting Arezzo
We piled in a car with Cheryl, Sharon, Catherine and Bobbi to head off in search of a market. As fate would have it, we never found the town our villa's caretaker, Barbara, suggested, so we headed down the road to Arrezo, which hosts a monthly antiques market in its city center.
Kim: Needless to say, Ellen and I were in proverbial hog heaven winding though the old city searching for treasures. While we saw truckloads of furniture and furnishings we would have loved to bring back, we had to limit ourselves to smaller items. Next time!!
Ellen: The sight of fabulous junky and stunning antique treasures spilling through the cobble-stoned and windy ancient streets of Arezzo made my heart ka-thunk, ka-thunk. We saw amazing and wonderful and strange stuff. From beautiful music boxes in the shape of birds in cages to an old oil portrait on a cigar box lid to the metal floral chandeliers I love to hats with swastikas on them, it was an experience. The sounds of negotiations going on were familiar to me, even if the language wasn’t. Although I’m proud to say I bargained—in Italian—for some sweet old postcards.
Lying in bed that night, as Kim and I wrote in our journals, I started looking through my treasures. I turned one postcard over and realized part of the message was written in Morse Code. WOW! The card was written in 1915, during the war and was addressed to an “Eduardo” at a military address. When we got home, I looked up the Morse Code alphabet and translated it, then translated those letters from Italian to English. What did it say? “Sweet kisses, my baby.” How wonderful is that?
Gelato flavor o' the day: Hazelnut/Nutella
Monday: A Little of the Grape
After awakening to the birds chirping and sun peaking through our green window shutters, eight of us headed out for Greve in Chianti to Castello di Verrazzano. This was a tour Ellen had been on previously and highly recommended. The 45-minute ride was very pleasant as we got to know our driver, Mossimo. The vineyard itself was beautiful and we were excited to see everything.
Our tour guide was Gino, a very funny Italian gentleman whose wit was only surpassed by his passion for the vineyard and its products. He was a hoot. After touring the late-Renaissance gardens, scouting for wild boar and checking out the cellars, we were treated to a wine tasting and a "food experience." It was ALL an experience!
Kim: Not being much of a wine drinker, I wasn't sure what to expect. And being a vegetarian, I was a bit skeptical over the food offerings. But I need not have worried - it was all delicious and there was PLENTY of food! We went through many food courses and tried each of the wines throughout the meal, my favorite being the cheese course. We got a thin wedge of pecorino romano with a pepper jelly. Squisito! Then we got a chunk of nutty parmesan to be paired with balsalmic creme. Stupore! I want to eat that every day!!
Ellen: Who wouldn’t want to return to a fabulous castle winery? The second time was even better than the first, which was wonderful. (Can’t wait for the third trip!) Gino, our guide, was magnificent. He brought me to tears as he passionately talked about the importance of the wine experience. He told us about the pride of the Italian people, their long relationship with the grapes and olives that grow naturally in the ground they call home. He said not to judge the wine, but to relish the experience with your whole heart. “Wine is life,” he said. “The recipe is the conclusion of the experience.”
Wines tasted: Verrazzano Rosso, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva (yum!), Sassello Supertuscan (super yum!), Vin Santo with biscotti (oh my!), and Grappa (uh, not so much).
Gelato flavor o' the day: Frutti di Bosco (fruit of the forest)
Verdict: Berry, berry good!
Tuesday: Flirty Florence
Florence was crowded and beautiful! We walked almost everywhere and I'm sure we saw every building at least twice. Our first stop was the Santa Maria Novella Perfumery, which was tucked into a non-assuming entrance on Via della Scala.
If you can't make it to Florence to visit this beautiful store, their products are available state-side.
NEXT, and most importantly, we found our way to Trattoria Za-Za. Ellen professed that she had eaten here before and the thought of eating here again was her sole reason for coming back to Florence. And after our lunch, I would concur that it lived up to all expectations! We both had ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup of bread, vegetable broth and veggies (yum, oh, yum, yum, yum) followed by cheese ravioli with a creamy walnut sauce (ditto on the yums).
After lunch we filled the afternoon browsing through the large street market searching for treasures (some of which we've brought back to Loverly) and visiting the Duomo. We sat beneath the dome, marveling at the ceiling frescos and getting our second wind...it's been a long day of walking, sightseeing and eating ;-)
Kim: Wow! The interior of the perfumery, which encompassed several rooms, was fabulously frescoed and glowing in soft light, fabulous display cases and wonderful, wonderful scents. I'm not a big perfume person, but I wanted one of everything!!
Lunch was absolutely divine! We were serenaded by a trio of muscians and entertained by daring birds as we sat al fresco in the piazza. It would not have hurt my feelings to eat there every day. Really!
Side note: when you travel to a foreign place, it never hurts to have someone by your side who knows the ropes. And Ellen was my rope walker! Having been here several times before, she was the best unpaid tour guide I could have hired. I'll be happy to rent her out, as long as I get to tag along. Thanks, pal!!
Gelato flavor o' the day: Tiramisu
Verdict: More, please!
Wednesday: ...On a Three-City Tour, a Three-City Tour
Siena, San Gimignano & Volterra
Again, the same group that toured the winery packed ourselves into Mossimo's minivan and away we went, traipsing through the countryside to visit these three beautiful locations. At the start of our journey, we stopped briefly at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, which we had spotted from the villa.
Siena, known for its famous horse race in the town's Piazzo del Campo, deserved more than our two-hour visit (next trip). We started at the top of the hill, at the Duomo (cathedral) with a tour of this striking black and white-striped marble masterpiece. Then we worked our way down to the piazza, imagining the horse race and how fantastic that must be to witness. Before leaving, some of us visited the ATM of the world's oldest bank. Luckily, it spat out modern currency.
Time for lunch! Mossimo had the perfect place in mind...Il Piccolo Castello, in the hilltop village of Monterriggioni. We sat out back under a covered porch admiring the foliage and the serenading birds while sharing stories, lunch and a charming white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Next stop, San Gimignano (san-gee-min-yan-no). Traditionally famous for it's towers, it's now famous for the number of tourists that were GETTING IN OUR WAY! We walked up to the highest point to take pics of as many towers as we could get into the frame...which we managed...along with some kid's head and hand. Dang it.
Finally, to Volterra. As we traveled up, up, up, the landscape changed from gentle slopes of olive groves and vineyards to one of undulating farmlands freshly turned from wheat harvesting. As we rounded one of the last switchbacks going up the mountain, we saw a huge red "O" sculpture in the field next to the road. Hmmm, what's the story behind that, we wondered then...and are still wondering.
The view from Volterra was AMAZING! Definitely worth the trip. We could even see the sparkling Mediterranean way, way off in the distance. We then spotted a huge rain storm coming up the valley and thought we should high-tail it out of there before we were dowsed. Not to worry, it never made it that far and, to top it off, gave us a gorgeous rainbow.
Kim: Looking back after our trip, with everything we saw and did, my absolute favorite was the drive up to Volterra and the sweeping vista of landscape below. It was that spectacular. I would love to go back when the fields are full of grain and see all those fields gently swaying in the breeze.
And after Mossimo shared stories and pictures of his 2007 adventure driving piano virtuoso Lang Lang to a concert hosted by Andrea Bocelli in his hometown of Lajatico, we were treated to listening to some Bocelli on the ride home. Ahhhh, Tuscany. I'm in love.
Ellen: Yep, what she said. This was a great day of seeing beautiful sights. From the stunning interior of Siena’s duomo, complete with amazing floor mosaics, to the gorgeous land around Volterra and the other hilltowns, I was completely happy. THIS is Tuscany. “The only way it could get better,” Cheryl had said the day before, “was if we see a rainbow.”
Gelato flavor o' the day: Meloné (Ellen), None (Kim...too much food at lunch)
Verdict: Have had better Meloné — so disappointed it got tossed. ;-(
Thursday: Gold Finger
Back into Florence and our first destination was the Ponte Vecchio - one of the most recognizable sites in Florence. The entire bridge is filled with jewelry shops — more bling per square foot than anywhere I've seen. We managed to find a shop selling reasonably priced charms, and each bought a couple to commemorate our Florence visit. Ellen got a Duomo charm, while I picked up a Ponte Vecchio and a little Pinnocchio (I couldn't resist his articulated arms and legs...a perfectly charming charm.)
Crossing the bridge, we headed toward the Pitti Palace and were sidetracked by a stationery store and a row of working artists selling their wares. After making our purchases, we decided lunch was more important than a tour of the palace, and headed back to find some food. This was our cheapest meal of the trip - a couple pieces of eggplant focaccia pizza for under 10 Euros for the both of us.
Next stop, the Museo di Storia Della Scienza around the corner from the Uffizi. Not a very popular museum with the tourists (probably gets more visits by school groups than anyone else), but we were on a mission. We had read in the Rick Steve's guide that not only did the museum house Galileo's telescope and other instruments of science, but, more curiously, it held the right middle finger of Galileo himself. Well, once we read that, we had to see it for ourselves. And sure enough, there it was, encased in a glass egg on a little marble pedestal. There were great journals from several astronomers and scientists and other neat mechanical thingies - some of which would have made interesting jewelry - but the finger was the ultimate treasure, in our humble opinion. ;-)
More walking, more walking, more walking. We visited another glorious paper store, the ATM (Bankomat) machine, and the junk/antique market on the rather seedy side of town. Again, lots of cool stuff, but how to get it home (without spending our life savings on shipping)? Next trip, we budget in someone to hoof our luggage and packages. Any takers?
Ellen: I’d been to the Uffizi a couple times and Kim really wanted to see that finger!! And sure enough, it was Galileo’s real finger…so weird! We were quite interested in the fact that it was his middle finger and if it had any significance as he touted his scientific findings in religious Florence… The other satisfaction of the day was finding wonderful street art...and artists. We consider our little original paintings special souvenirs.
Gelato flavor o' the day: Caffé (Ellen), Riso (Kim)
Friday: Ciao, Florence
Last day in Florence, and today was reserved for David. We were late getting to the Accademia Gallery, but that didn't matter, tickets were in hand. Word to the wise...MAKE RESERVATIONS AND BUY TICKETS AHEAD OF TIME. Then make sure you stand in the line for those with reservations. Otherwise, you'll waste a day standing in a very long line.
David (ala Michaelangelo) is HUGE. Really...he's 13' 5", which seems even taller given he's standing on a pedestal. The Accademia is not a large museum, but they have, in addition to the man with huge hands, a large collection of plaster casts and Russian iconography.
Final destination...Mercato Centrale to the food market. This indoor market houses a plethera of meats, cheeses, spices, oils, and wines. Gastronomical heaven! The entire second floor is devoted to fruits and veggies, and we picked up several items for our train trip the next day.
Kim: For our last night in the villa, Tom and Carol made a delicious dinner for everyone. After having convinced Tom that I didn't really cook (and therefore, my son survived on PB&J and cereal), he took me under his chef's wing and taught me to make an extremely tasty spinach & pasta dish. I made it for my family upon my return, after which my husband proclaimed "you should go to Italy more often." I concur! The secret to a better pasta dish....more olive oil!!
Ellen: After making our final purchases in the market, we were on our way to the bus stop when I realized we hadn’t had our daily allotment of gelato. STOP! There’s a gelateria right there. I chose two flavors: Panna Cotta and Sour Cherry. Kim chose one: Amaretto. We decided to sit at the table on the sidewalk, so the lady said go sit, they would bring us the gelato in beautiful dishes. So we put down our packages and sat with a sigh. A funny man came to us with the ice cream and was trying to figure out who got the two scoops and who got one. “I’m the pig,” I said. He leaned over the table, looked into my eyes and said, “I love the piggy woman!”
Gelato flavor o' the day: Panna Cotta and Sour Cherry (Ellen), Amaretto (Kim)
Verdict: Two thumbs up. Two thumbs way up. Oink.
Saturday: Venezia, Here We Come
Since Tom and Peg were going to Venice to visit their daughter and family, we shared a train ride. And to avoid hefting luggage on the bus, we hired Mossimo once again to cart us to the train station. On the way, he swung us over to Piazzale Michelangelo, which has a splendid overlook of Florence.
Our train didn't leave until 1:30, so we had a nice two-hour rest at the station until we had to board. Once on the train, we enjoyed a picnic of cheese, crackers, dried fruit and nuts. HELPFUL HINT: When traveling on a train with luggage, make sure you board the right car. We knew we had to be in car 10, but got on at car 7 because we were afraid the train would take off without us. Which meant we had to squeeze our way, with all of our luggage, through three cars. NOT FUN! And to top it off, Ellen had to kick two nuns out of our seats. And, I might add, she had no qualms doing so. Go, Ellen!
Once in Venice, we bought our vaporetto tickets and hopped on the water taxi to make our way around to St. Mark's Square, where our hotel was. When we disembarked, it was a short walk, once we found the correct hidden alleyway, I mean street, to Hotel al Leon. After much needed showers, we hit the streets to find the restaurant recommended by our hotelier. And to top off the evening, we headed to St. Mark's Square, which is dazzling in the evening with the up-lighting on all the buildings. We were entertained by the many orchestras that play in front of the restaurants and cafes around the square. Crowds gather at each orchestra stage - and sit in the chairs. Be warned...sitting can cost a pretty Euro as food is very expensive—you're paying for the pleasure of being entertained by talented musicians.
Kim: First impression of Venice...it felt like Disney World. I think this was due to the number of people teeming about and the historic architecture hidden by scaffolding and humongous billboard advertisements. For Pete's sake, the Bridge of Sighs was entombed by ads.
For dinner, I thought I'd play it safe and get a fried seafood platter (no fried food for a week and I was jonesing for some fries and fish). No fish... just a plate of calamari (which I like), whole fried prawns (which kind of freaked me out) and cuttlefish (which I ate, but refused to look at).
And while I loved the location we stayed at, it was pretty noisy into the wee hours of the morning and the bed was hard as cement. But we did enjoy our room's beautiful glass chandelier!
Ellen: Venice is simply unlike any place else on earth. It’s beautiful and charming and secretive and real. I’ve been there twice before, and I’m still enthralled with it. The billboards that hid construction work on St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs were appalling, but we kept ourselves away from the more popular areas and tried to get lost…
Sunday: Murano Glass
Hopped on the vaporetto to the island of Murano, where all the Venetian glass factories are located. It's a very pretty island and easy to walk around. We enjoyed window shopping and eventually found a shop doing a glass blowing demonstration. Unfortunately, it was really a demo for a tour group that had just come in. We saw a vase blown - very quickly. Then we saw the artist make a horse — very quickly. Then it was back out into the showroom where sales were being encouraged. Smart marketing on the artist's part — especially since all the factories were closed on Sunday and he was the only one we saw doing demos. But disappointing that we didn't get to see more of the technique.
Back in Venice, we met up with Tom and Peg and their daughter Suzanne, husband Rob and grandaughter Kyla. They were down from Nottingham, England to visit their folks and we shared a wonderful dinner sitting beside the Grand Canal, practically under the Rialto Bridge.
Kim: I was pretty disappointed in the beads we saw. For the most part, all of them looked the same—lots of gold- and silver-foiled beads. I saw several lampwork bead artist's studio and again, not impressed. (Am I a bead snob???) Some shops had signs stating "no Chinese beads sold here," which indicates there are shops, in Venice at least, selling imported beads and claiming them to be from Murano.
Regardless, the glass sculptures and chandeliers we saw were magnificent.
Ellen: I loved all the color and sparkle. Murano is a charming island and Kim and I wandered around, stumbling onto a boat race along one of its canals. “Go, Giovanni!” (I heard someone yelling his name, so I cheered, too!) Gotta be a part of it! We saw lots of glass, but Kim’s beads and jewelry could easily be in any of the poshest galleries here. No question.
Gelato flavor o' the day: None today. We opted, instead, to pop into a chocolate shop and pick up a couple pieces of cake and chocolate-covered, liquor-soaked cherries.
Verdict: What's not to love?
Monday: Walking Around, Through and Over Venice
Since we had to leave that night for Germany, we needed to check out of the hotel by 11am. Fortunately, we were allowed to leave our luggage there until we needed to pick up our bags and head for the train station.
So today was "get lost" day. We walked, and walked, and walked. While I can't guarantee we put our feet down on all 100 islands that make up Venice, we surely came close.
Venice is a beautiful, romantic city...but you must appreciate narrow alleys, peeling paint, decaying brickwork and algae-covered steps. It was a lot of fun threading our way through alleyways and across bridges. There were so many retail stores, no matter where we were, so we always had something to admire (besides the city itself).
We found our way to the Fenice Opera House, which had recently been rebuilt after a devastating fire in the last 1990s. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in past the front doors, but it sure looked splendid.
When our backs and feet gave out, we sat and people watched. At dusk, we watched several HUGE cruise ships come down the canal between Venice and the island of Giudecca - that was a pretty amazing sight. Then we picked up our luggage and made our way to the train station.
When we finally figured out what train to get on, we discovered that our sleeper car didn't sleep two, like we had hoped. It slept six. SIX. And guess which two people had the top bunks? Not the youngest, that's for darn sure. We managed to get some sleep, as crappy as it was, and made it into Munich where we found a STARBUCKS! Halleluiah!! We grabbed ourselves a chai latte and found our train to Stuttgart.
Kim: German trains are awesome! It was a very comfortable and easy ride. Helpful hint...when purchasing online tickets for the trains, make sure you bring the same credit card you used to buy the e-ticket. The conductor checks your tickets against it. When we arrived in Stuttgart, there was our very good friend Janina and her almost one-year-old son Felix waiting at the end of the platform to greet us. I don't think we actually knocked anyone over in our rush to get our hugs in, but I think we came close!
Ellen: Okay, this was a new experience…one I don’t have to do again! The bunk bed situation was hysterical and Kim announced to everyone in the car, once we had climbed alllllll the way up to our top bunks, that she had been known to fall out of bunk beds. Of course, she was five at the time…
Wednesday & Thursday: Germany
For the next two days, we enjoyed catching up with our friends Janina and Robert and getting to know Felix, who is quite a character. Janina took us to see Ludwigsburg Castle, where we explored the beautiful grounds and experienced the annual pumpkin festival (pumpkin wine was quite delicious) and the Fairytale Gardens with sculptures, some interactive if you ask them to do something, from the most well-known German fairytales. The funniest was Rupunzel's tower where, if you asked (in German, of course) "Rupunzel, let down your golden hair," a huge blond braid with big red bow descended from the tower. Not low-enough, however, for anyone to climb up. Darn it.
We enjoyed quite a few delicious German meals, the most fun being the Besen we visited—homey food, a cozy atmosphere and a full stomach. The origin of these small restaurants is a lovely story. Usually found in vineyard areas like south-west Germany, they were run by families who had some time to spare in between different phases of the grape-growing and wine-producing seasons. They would take a room of their house, clear out all the normal furniture, sweep out the room, add some tables and chairs for eating and then hang their broom up outside so that passers-by would realize their besen was open for business. Then, they’d cook delicious homestyle meals for the visitors, served, of course, with some of their own wines. In German, the word Besen means broom, so that’s where it all comes from (this perfect description borrowed from suite101.com).
We shared stories (did you know in Korea it's an insult to be called "numba 10 driva!") and Robert figured out how to work the Addiator we picked up at a yard sale Wednesday afternoon.
Janina had previously found Carlee, a local lampwork bead artist, and arranged a visit for us. She has a really cool studio in her home in Stuttgart where she teaches as well as makes beads. And her work is absolutely beautiful. We had to bring some treasures home with us, and it was hard picking which were our favorites.
For our last day, we had planned on visiting Rothenburg ober der Tauber, which is a beautiful walled city, but the weather finally broke and it rained all day. Felix was feeling a bit cranky as well (probably because he knew we were leaving the next day ;-) so we opted to stay in. Janina and Robert have a really cool projector system, so we put Felix down for a nap, closed the awesome blinds they have that completely block out the light, and snuggled in with a delicious cup of hot chocolate, cookies, the cat Mitzie and watched Chocolat. PERFECT LAST DAY!!
Kim: Janina and Robert, we love you! You are treasured friends and we all wish it could have been a longer visit. Thanks so much for organizing our "tour" and finding very cool things for us to see and do. I miss you!!
Ellen: Janina and Robert are wonderful friends and perfect hosts! It was so nice to see them again, as well as the area in which they’re living. We felt so welcome and I can’t wait for another visit. One of the best days of the whole trip was playing in the pumpkins and the Fairytale Garden, and then giggling as we ate and drank at the besen Robert had found. “Only locals know about this place,” he said. “You’ll get some good German food.” That and so much more!
Friday: The Final Leg
Poor Robert! He had to get up at 3:30 Friday morning to drive us back to Munich to catch our flight. Not many people would be willing to do that, and do it so graciously—what a pal!
After a slight mixup at the Delta counter concerning our reservations (word to the wise...don't mess with Ellen at 6:30 in the morning when she's only had a couple hours of sleep and carting 112 lbs of luggage around), we found our way home, via Prague, via New York, finally to Norfolk. It was a very, very long day.
Back to the families. Back to work. Back to reality. But in our souls, we'll be reliving this vacation for many years to come as one of the truly special times in our lives. Thank you, Italy, for the wondrous sites, tastes and people. Thank you, Germany, for giving us time with our friends. And thank you families for holding down the fort while we gallivanted across the globe.
Kim: Thank you, Ellen, for being a wonderful friend and travel partner and letting me tag along. Let's do it again!!
Ellen: Right back atcha, sister! Let’s put our red pins in the map and look for our next adventure…